As we end the first season of Jormungand – as we should, with Jonah and Koko squarely in focus – my thoughts are right where they were when I read the manga: there’s nothing else quite like this series.
As is my usual practice I won’t do a “Series Review” post here, as Jormungand is effectively a two-cour series that happens to have a break in the middle. That’s a shame in a way, because I feel as if it’s gotten a little overshadowed in Spring – both because of a slightly slow start and because the season was packed with quality at the top and depth. Against the backdrop of the wafer-thin Summer schedule, Jormungand would likely have stood out as the clear top show of the season. In Fall it’s probably going to be up against a field that might not be the equal of this season, but should comfortably surpass Summer. It doesn’t matter all that much, I guess, because it’s a show that stands comfortably on its own terms as a winner, no matter the competition for our attention.
Hopefully we can put all the Black Lagoon comparisons behind us now, and it’s become clear to most viewers that the similarities between these two shows are only superficial. Jormungand is quite unlike any other manga or anime I know, and it has a remarkable ability to take you inside the minds of people doing terrible things and not just make you understand them, but even love them as characters. If there was a message to this arc, I think it was that no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, the “heroes” of Jormungand are not good people. They’re motivated by things like profit and revenge, they distribute weapons of death, and often deliver death themselves with nary a grain of regret or guilt. We should accept it, as Koko certainly has – as she tells Valmet, she’s a “force of evil”. She says it with her usual grin, but hopefully you’ve figured out by now that the wider Koko smiles, the more she’s covering.
So why is it, then, that I feel such affection to these characters as people despite their extensive moral culpability? With Jonah it’s easy to explain – he’s primarily a victim of his circumstances, and he’s a cute child (whose depths become apparent over the course of time). But the others? Apart from the obvious – the superb writing by mangaka Takahashi Keitarou – I think it’s the notion that nothing in life is as simple as pure black and white, pure good and evil. Jormungand teaches us that bad people still love their friends, still have dreams, are still driven by loyalty and devotion, and still take pleasure in the same small things we do. And they still bleed red blood, and they still die with their dreams unfulfilled. I think this is a story about humanity in the face of an inhumane world, and while it’s best personified by Team Koko it applies to most of their adversaries to some extent as well.
It happens that this first cour ends on an arc (“Soldier of Destruction” in the manga) that while good, isn’t one of the very best. That’s fine, though, because it’s an important one for the reasons stated above, and by bringing Valmet’s backstory to light, finds a natural stopping point for the anime and frees the second cour to focus where I think it should – on Koko, Jonah and Lehm. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as Kuroda and Motonaga-sensei have stuck to the manga almost to the letter, and this was the closest to the chronological midpoint of the manga. Slightly more than half of the manga has been covered so if anything, White Fox can add a bit of original material in the second cour if they so choose (not much) but so far they’ve been astonishingly faithful in their adaptation. In fact, it might have been a more “traditional” decision to stop in the middle of this arc on a true cliffhanger, but it would also have been more traditional to help the new viewer along with a bit more exposition and explanation, and they haven’t chosen to do that – they left us with the introduction of CIA Europe Station Chief George Black (Isobe Tsutomu – yes, he was in Black Lagoon) and “R” (Konishi Katsuyuki) without any explanation, so this stopping point was very true to form.
We do get our exposition in this arc, but as always Takahashi-sensei takes his time and does it at his own pace – and often out of sequence in the timeline. Team Koko in fact has had issues with organized crime trying to pay them in drugs before – this time in cocaine – and the end result was the same. That encounter was the one which led Ugo to join the team. Those of you clamoring for the full version of “Koko is Loco” finally get to hear the whole thing, used as a soundtrack for a killer car chase involving Ugo, Koko and Boss Dominique. Lots of interesting stuff happens with Dominique and his little group, who could come off as bland NPCs – they’re underlings at best – but Dominique is another of those characters that comes off as human despite his role as the one trying to kill the heroes of the show. What’s crucial here is that his loyalty to his team proves stronger than his loyalty to the ones who paid him, and he breaks one of the cardinal rules of his trade by tipping Koko (though not us) off as to who that was.
Notice here, too, that while Lehm (only slightly wounded) is trying to hustle Koko away, she wants a piece of the action herself – and in fact is the one who takes down Liliane. Perhaps she’s still feeling reckless after the incident with Valmet – and it’s Valmet who we perhaps learn the most about here. No matter how we glorify it, Valmet is taking time away from her job killing people to kill different people for personal reasons. This is about revenge, simply put, though for Valmet it’s also about silencing the demons tormenting her. Her skills as a solider are undeniable – she takes down an entire squadron of Chen Guoming’s Daxinghai security armed with automatic weapons with nothing more than her knives. But Valmet is a confused, broken woman, make no mistake about it.
Chen tells Valmet she should be grateful to him, because it was his destruction of her entire U.N. peacekeeping squad that made her the soldier she is today. There’s no doubt that’s true – but is that something she should be grateful for? Is she happier being this ghost of her former self? It’s worth remembering that Valmet was a Peacekeeper – in name at least – when she was Major Velmer. She can’t shut out the humanity that remains in herself – she loves Koko, and she obviously feels a protective affection for Jonah, who she calls a “great guy” even as she drugs him and ditches him to finish her business alone. And when Karen comes after her on her own mission of revenge, Valmet reverts to her old self and sacrifices her body to protect the child in the line of fire.
Well, thank goodness Jonah has the will of a giant in the body of a little boy, because if he hadn’t shrugged off enough tranqs to “knock out an elephant” Valmet would be dead. One might conceivably take issue with “plot armor” here, with both Karen and Valmet surviving – indeed, considering the line of work Team Koko is in you might even make the argument against the series as a whole – but that aside, Valmet’s whole arc reeks of tragedy all around. She’s dedicated her life to revenging herself against Chen for what he did, and she repeats the same atrocity – even, in fact, copying Chen’s fighting style to do so. She kills an entire squadron to satisfy the spirits of the dead, and this sets Karen off on her own quest for revenge – and Karen screams “I hate this world!” even as Valmet lies bleeding out and child solider Jonah is gunning Karen down. There are no winners here – it’s a losers game, for everyone involved.
Really, Jormungand should be incredibly depressing generally speaking. But somehow, it’s not – and that, for me, is the magic. Jormungand manages to be funny and even life-affirming despite all the horror and betrayal and death. There are a few very good series at the moment using absurdity to enlighten reality, and Jormungand does it with the best of them. If Team Koko – and even her adversaries and the minor characters – weren’t interesting and believable characters, this would be nothing more than an exceedingly violent comic book. But in fact it’s a very human story, where every crazy event brings us closer to understanding the characters, their world, and even our own. Fall can’t come too soon for me.